What to do when employees have a personal crisis

Respecting the professional environment is important, but it’s essential to recognize human limitations.

Even your best employees sometimes go through personal crises. While you can set clear expectations, you risk losing good people and creating a toxic workplace by refusing to make any accommodations. On the other side of things, certain behaviours are simply intolerable.

Start by identifying if the problem is actually with the employee and by ruling out structural problems at work. Have a conversation with the individual about what’s not working and what they think the problem is. Understanding underlying problems, such as bereavement, health challenges, family or relationship troubles, or other causes can offer clues as to how to move forward. Note that employees are not obligated to provide information to you and may not be comfortable providing much detail.

You may observe problems which employees are unwilling or unable to discuss, such as a sudden change in social behaviour, focus, sobriety, or attitude. Careful observation may help you know how best to respond. Look for empirical observations such as a verifiable reduction in output quality or quantity, change in schedule, or evidence of substance abuse. Results from a drug testing lab can be obtained quickly and on demand if needed. Fact-based observations can help you document problems and make the right plan to respond.

You, your management, and your other employees may need to do some continuing education or self-study in appropriate responses, depending on the situation. A leave of absence, adjusted workplace expectations, or help accessing resources could be appropriate.

It should be noted that an employee may respond to a personal crisis not simply by underperforming at work, but by bringing inappropriate behaviour to the workplace. There may be conflict with others, evidence of substance misuse, or other undesirable behaviour. Your response should vary depending on the situation. Seek out professional advice regarding expectations and approaches.

Often, it’s appropriate to make the employee aware of what the problems observed are, what the business policy or expectation is, and what options are available to them. Your expectations may not be achievable in the immediate future, depending on what the employee is going through, which is why there needs to be sensitivity to nature of their crisis, but of course there does need to be limits.

Anything that risks the health, safety, or wellbeing of the employee or others needs to be addressed in short order. Some workplaces offer more risks than others. A leave of absence may be necessary in these situations. You may have regulatory requirements to meet as well. While you can’t relax some requirements, you might adjust responses for employees going through a crisis situation.

Start with understanding. Seek out resources regarding the nature of the crisis to respond appropriately to it. Give employees limited opportunities to remediate behaviour and offer support to them during the difficult period. Document fact-based concerns and measures taken in response. Employees will encounter personal crises, so avoid losing good people by using the right responses and having a flexible approach.